Tour de France 2020

COVID protocols costing teams ‘tens of thousands’ of dollars

Increased budget item is part of new reality for peloton.

The coronavirus pandemic is already costing WorldTour teams hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in lost revenue.

And just as teams prepare for the first races after an unprecedented four-month race stoppage that’s already crushed team budgets, there’s another unexpected financial burden in the form of COVID-19 protocols.

Teams across the WorldTour peloton are spending tens of thousands of euros, if not more, to implement strict new health protocols that the UCI and race organizers are rolling out.

Officials tell VeloNews that the additional health costs could end up in the low six-figure range per WorldTour team during the next several months.

With the Tour de France looming in late August, teams have largely resigned themselves that the extra cost is simply part of doing business in the new reality in a COVID-19 world.

“It’s really a lot of money,” Jumbo-Visma general manager Richard Plugge told VeloNews. “Following these protocols will cost money, but that’s OK with us. Not racing at all would cost even more.”

Teams across the peloton are grappling with the new financial burden of following strict health protocols which cycling’s stakeholders believe will allow racing to resume in the second half of the season.

As Plugge said, it’s an extra cost, but one that teams have no choice but to take on, because the alternative — no racing at all — is even bleaker.

“These tests and other measures will cost a lot of money,” Plugge said in a telephone interview. “That’s OK for us. What’s most important is that the health of the riders and staff is preserved.”

Teams have been game-planning a return to competition for weeks. On one side is the racing and everything that comes with that, from training camps, to preparation races, to the grand tours and monuments. On the other side are the exceptional challenges the coronavirus presents to the sport. Teams have embraced the challenge, and have pro-actively been working together behind the scenes with other key stakeholders to try to create a viable blueprint that will allow for safe race conditions.

A big part of the answer is to create COVID-free “bubbles” that will allow riders and staffers to work, travel and race together in relatively safe conditions.

That comes at a price. A battery of COVID-19 tests, both anti-body and virus controls, are being required for all staffers and riders across the peloton. Anyone going to a WorldTour race — from a racer to sport director to masseur to bus driver — must undergo two tests before being allowed to participate. The first comes at six days before a race, and a second control less than three days ahead of a start. Any positive cases, obviously, are not allowed to attend.

A typical team includes close to 30 riders, and at least double that in support staff. That adds up to a lot of tests across the arc of the revised 2020 racing calendar.

Teams are telling VeloNews that organizing these health controls is proving to be a puzzle, with riders living in different parts of the globe. It’s also expensive. Some countries offer free testing as part of its national health service, but teams are finding that they are having to contract tests with private health providers that charge up to $100 or more per test due to the quick turn-around required to meet the UCI protocol.

“It’s bloody expensive,” one WorldTour team official told VeloNews. “We’re budgeting $100,000 for controls during the revised, four-month season.”

Israel Start-Up Nation riders rode through urban areas in masks during their recent Andorra camp. Photo: Noa Arnon / Israel Start-Up Nation

Teams with deep pockets can absorb those costs, but for other squads, especially among the lower-tier ranks and the women’s peloton, that burden is proving to be very high.

Some have already expressed concern that teams might be forced to cut corners due to the high costs, and thus put the entire peloton to risk.

Other teams have expressed frustration that there is not one central data bank available to all teams and races. With racing set to resume this weekend with a pair of women’s races in Spain, there is a feeling that every team and each race is operating as an individual entity. Some have grumbled there needs to be a stronger cohesive, peloton-wide direction.

Creating working “bubbles” is costing teams more than just paying for the health controls.

Jumbo-Visma, for example, is not allowing more than two people to travel together in a car. The team rented out entire hotels during their respective training camps, thus assuring that outside, possibly infected carriers will not mix in with the team and staff. The team also sends in advance crews to sanitize rooms with cleansers and special fog machines that zap out nasty bugs.

“Once riders arrive to our bubble, we do temperature testing every day,” Plugge said. “There is more testing if there are symptoms. Normally, if everyone is negative in a group, they should stay negative if we don’t mix with other people. That’s the way we can preserve the bubble and keep the peloton clean.”

While teams are hopeful for this summer’s Tour de France, the possibility of a coronavirus spike in fall throws doubt on later races. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Many of those steps, including the use of private chefs and using their own washing machines and pillows, have been around for years, so adapting to the COVID reality is more about expanding on many of the health protocols teams already have, rather than re-inventing the wheel.

Everyone seems to get the message, because everyone knows what’s at stake. Last week, Team Sunweb sent home one of its riders from a team training camp after they breached the team’s protocol, and left the “bubble” simply to go to a store to buy shampoo.

Other teams have instituted almost “house arrest” rules for its riders and staff, asking them to avoid big gatherings with the larger public.

One misstep could mean that a team might be removed from a race, or, even worse, a race might be postponed or even canceled outright.

“We’re asking everyone to be very cautious and to be aware of that,” Plugge said. “Otherwise they cannot come to the Tour de France or some other race.”

Cycling is unique in that it’s a team sport, with upwards of 200 sweating, coughing and spitting athletes, often times at elbow’s length, sprinting toward a finish line. A stage race presents even more unique hurdles, with the entourage moving from place to place. Add media and fans, and the sport is facing a massive experiment that could very well determine the future of more than a few teams.

Many insiders believe that the sport has done a good job building up its internal controls and protocols to be able to deliver safe and viable race conditions.

It could well be the larger, outside forces will determine how much racing happens going into the fall. Spikes of new COVID-19 cases are being reported in Spain and other parts of Europe. And with some predicting a second wave of cases later this year, some wonder if cycling’s revised calendar will see all of its dates fully completed.

“I am optimistic, especially for the Tour de France,” Plugge said. “They have organized it really well. What I am worried a bit about is the amount of racing. The calendar is so packed and full. We will have to make some choices to keep our bubbles intact and not break them too much.”

After investing so much in creating the COVID-safe bubbles, teams don’t want to see their investment go to waste.